U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   07/26/2005
Statement of Honorable Ron Wyden
United States Senator from the State of Oregon
An Oversight Hearing on Electronics Waste

Mr. Chairman, America is a computer-dependent society. I’m willing to bet that before coming to this hearing, almost every person in this room used a computer to write a document, to check e-mail, or to read the news. Yet as much as we depend on our computers, we seldom think about what they’re made of. Let me tell you.

The desktop computer in your office right now contains about 14 pounds of plastic, 4 pounds of lead, 8.5 pounds of aluminum, more than 12 pounds of iron, half a pound of nickel and lesser amounts of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, titanium, zinc, beryllium and gold. There’s mercury in LCD and gas plasma screens, lead in monitors and circuit boards, cadmium in chip resistors and semiconductors and heavy metals in CPUs. And every year, millions of newly obsolete computers – and televisions, and other electronic trash or e-waste – are discarded to the tune of 2.2 million tons. Those 2.2 million tons of e-trash are the equivalent of 219 Boeing 737 jetliners. If handled improperly, this hazardous stew of toxic e-waste can poison water supplies, people and the environment. But there is a better way.

Today, barely one in 10 computers gets recycled or reused. Compare that to old cars: 94% go to scrap yards where useable parts are reclaimed, and the rest of the material is shredded, compacted and recycled into appliances, cars and other products.

Senator Talent and I believe that the United States can put less e-waste in the landfill and more in the recycling bin. We have proposed S. 510, a pro-consumer, pro-environment and pro-technology bill to jumpstart a nationwide recycling infrastructure for electronic waste. Our bipartisan approach is the first to rely on incentives, rather than upfront fees or end-of-life penalties, to deal with electronic waste. Our legislation offers incentives to consumers and small businesses to get their old computers and laptops out of the closet and into the e-waste stream. Our legislation offers manufacturers, retailers and recyclers incentives to recycle e-waste. The bill has the support of retailers, electronics manufacturers, and environmental recyclers.

Specifically, our legislation would:

Establish an $8 per unit tax credit for companies that recycle at least 5,000 display screens or computer system units per year;

Establish a $15 tax credit for consumers who recycle their old computers and tv’s, provided they use qualified recyclers;

Prohibit the disposal in a municipal solid waste landfill of any electronic equipment with a display screen larger than 4 inches or any computer system unit, beginning three years after the bill passes if EPA finds that the majority of U.S. households have reasonable access to e-waste recycling;

Modify EPA’s universal waste rule to classify screens and system units as “universal wastes” to allow for easier collection, processing, transportation and recycling;

Require Federal executive agencies to recycle or reuse their display screens and CPUs; and

Direct EPA to recommend to Congress the feasibility of establishing a nationwide e-waste recycling program that would preempt any state plan within one year.

We do not claim to have a monopoly on the wisdom for how e-waste should be recycled, and so the tax credit is limited to 3 years. Our goal is to get a recycling infrastructure launched, and in the meantime, have EPA look at various options, at what various states are doing and come up with recommendations for Congress for a nationwide e-waste recycling plan.

The bill recognizes that states like California have already put a plan in place, and that many other states, like Oregon, are moving in that direction. But if every state and hundreds of municipalities and counties take different paths to solve the e-waste problem, the country will end up with a hodge podge of rules and regulations. Companies and consumers who are keen on doing the right thing will be confused, innovation will be stifled and not a lot of recycling would get done. One nationwide program seems to make the most sense.

Last week the New York Times carried a story about computers so infected with spyware and adware that they are on life support. Rather than going through the painstaking process of debugging them, consumers opt to toss them out and pay several hundred dollars for a new one. Unless some miracle cure is found, the spyware plague is not going away anytime soon, and the number of discarded computers will grow.

Then there’s the transition to digital television, which could pull the plug on analog television sets in 21 million American households. The hand-over of the old analog channels could take place in the next 4-5 years. Unless the U.S. gets serious about recycling electronic trash, what is going to happen to all those old tv sets?

It is not very often Congress has the chance to get a jumpstart on solving a problem. This is one place where a bipartisan effort can make a real difference. I look forward to working with you to get a nationwide electronic waste recycling program launched.